Mambo Kings meet the Louisville Pops

Jan 17, 2018 at 10:49 am
The Mambo Kings: L-R: Tony Padilla, Freddy Colon, Richard DeLaney, John Viavattine, Hector Diaz.
The Mambo Kings: L-R: Tony Padilla, Freddy Colon, Richard DeLaney, John Viavattine, Hector Diaz.

Richard DeLaney was 10 years old when he heard the pulsing rhythms of a tune called “Moliendo Café” on a radio station in his hometown, Lima, Peru.

It’s a Venezuelan song about the frustrated, romantic plight of a coffee grinder. But the version that became a hit in Peru had been recorded by a Cuban singer named Xiomar Alfaro.

“Moliendo Café” has been recorded more than 200 times over the last 60 years. At one time or another, it’s been a hit in nearly every Spanish-speaking country — as well as places such as Japan and Indonesia. Artists who’ve recorded it include not only the folks you might expect — Julio Iglesias, for instance — but artists as varied as Ray Conniff and the great operatic tenor Placido Domingo.

It’s a song that has captured the ears of people all over the world — and it set DeLaney on the path toward a career in music. Since 1995, he’s led the Mambo Kings, a Rochester, New York-based Latin jazz ensemble that joins with the Louisville Orchestra for a Pops concert this Saturday.

DeLaney said the song’s global reach exemplifies the universal popularity of the vivacious rhythms of the various styles of Latin music. But he also credits the less rigid radio formats that were common in the past. “I grew up listening to completely integrated radio,” he said in a phone interview. On Peruvian radio he could hear a mix of American rock, Peruvian folk and música tropical from Cuba and other Caribbean nations.

“It’s music that travels well,” he said. “It’s popular in Europe, in Canada. All over the world people love this stuff. It’s good stuff. The thing about Latin music is the energy that’s in it. It has romance. It has sentiment. It’s a kind of music that translates easily across cultures.”

These days, he said, format-driven commercial radio formats may have erected barriers that make it harder for listeners to discover all the different musical genres that are out there. But as an artist, part of his mission is to break down those barriers — which is one of the reasons he loves partnering with orchestras.

As an example of the ways in which Mambo Kings bridges musical barriers, DeLaney cited one of his compositions, “Melodia: Son Guajira,” which will be on this weekend’s program. It’s a mambo with Cuban elements, he said. “What the strings do,” he said, is exactly what the violins would do in charanga orchestra in Cuba. They have this little lick that they repeat over and over again. It all boils down to the groove, hitting the pocket. If you have a bunch of guys who can hit the pocket, the music is gonna swing. That’s the attraction of Latin music — it gets your butt moving, and you want to get up and dance.”

DeLaney said all the members of the Mambo Kings have years of experience playing in clubs. “We’re used to people getting up to dance. We encourage it. In fact, not long ago we played in Chattanooga — we had people up and dancing.”

That performance, said DeLaney, was conducted by the Louisville Orchestra’s Principal Pops Conductor, Bob Bernhardt, who will conduct this weekend’s concert. “We first played with the Louisville Orchestra with Bob back in the ‘90s, when we first started doing this,” recalled DeLaney. “We love to work with him because he understands the pocket, he understands groove. He lets the orchestra feel the beats. He understands how this works. We’ve played with him with several orchestras, and every time the orchestra has always risen and played extremely well. “

DeLaney said that the arrangements often surprise orchestras. “The music is complicated. Lots of times orchestras open their parts and go, ‘Oh, that’s a complicated rhythm.’ And it is. Of course it’s not like Bartok with nested septuplets and 7/8 time, but these syncopations require a different kind of feel. We’re going to have a great time.”

Louisville Orchestra Pops Concert with the Mambo Kings Conducted by Bob Bernhardt Saturday, Jan. 20 Kentucky Center 501 W. Main St. Prices vary  |  8 p.m.

Last weekend, the Louisville Orchestra’s Brown-Forman Classics Series concert found Guest Conductor Jayce Ogren on the podium for three pieces, Franz Berwald’s “Overture to Estrella de Soria,” Jean Sibelius’ “Symphony No. 7” and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D.”

Ogren weds a youthful energy and passion to a graceful, detailed, old school technique that elicited wonderfully transparent readings of the melodic richness of Berwald’s piece — and the profound complexity of the Sibelius. In eloquent comments from the stage, he described the opening measures of the Symphony as an evolutionary process that begins with the “shifting of tectonic plates as the first rock formations emerge from the earth.” The performance was superbly balanced and timed, with notably outstanding work from the woodwinds.

The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was the first major feature solo concerto performance from Concertmaster (First Violinist) Gabriel Lefkowitz, who recently replaced longtime Concertmaster Michael Davis. It was, technically, what you might call a doozy. Lefkowitz and Ogren seemed a perfect pair. Neither is flamboyant, but both were clear and bold — and the Orchestra was a nimble foil for Lefkowitz. In the first movement, he let the cadenza breathe when it needed to and articulated the virtuosic passages with pristine clarity. Anywhere other than a concert hall, that cadenza would have earned hoots and hollers from the audience. And when the first movement ended, at least some audience members offered much-deserved bravos and a standing ovation. The closing movements were just as fine. With Lefkowitz and Music Director Teddy Abrams in place, audiences have a lot to look forward to. •